Friday, July 16, 2010

Cows Tremble . . .

at the mention of his name. Or, in this case, buffalo are doing the trembling. Welcome to La Maison de Michael.

We are back in Billings, MT, at last and were invited to Mike and Joan Dannenberg’s that evening for Big Mike’s Bodacious Buffalo Burgers. Unfortunately, my traveling companion forgot the chip in his camera, so you will need to use your imagination as I talk about our dinner. The photo you see here was taken a few nights later.

It was a beautiful Billings evening with cool temperatures, low humidity, and a slight breeze. Mike asked if we wanted to sit inside and talk or go out on the back porch. Well, I was out the door before he got the question half asked. The porch it was, with a dynamite strawberry Margarita in hand made by chef Michael himself.

As we were taking an hour to catch up on the past year, Chuck asked Joan if her health food store still carried the “sea chips” we had eaten at their house the previous year. We enjoyed them so much that I have been carrying the empty bag in my purse from state to state looking for somewhere to buy them. Soon a bowl of the chips and a bowl of their homemade salsa were on the table. In addition to organic stone ground whole corn, these contain dulse (an edible algae) and kelp and get most of their saltiness from the sea vegetables. Then Joan tells us that she had ordered a whole case (twelve bags) for us as a gift. Bless her. And we decided to order another case so that we would have plenty of sea chips for the road.

It was time for the burgers to hit the grill. I have eaten a number of buffalo burgers during the past two years and will personally attest that Mike’s are the best. Buffalo is a very lean meat and therefore the burgers can be very dry unless prepared right. Mike’s are prepared right. What is his secret? The addition of a small amount of lean ground beef and egg to the ground buffalo. (Oops. I guess it’s no longer a secret.) So mentally picture an inch thick juicy buffalo burger sitting on a toasted bun and accompanied by baked beans and a tossed salad.

Mike and Joan had introduced us to Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery last year and this was a “must return” on this trip. One is immediately tempted by the two pastry cases just inside the door containing the giant cinnamon rolls (for which Stella’s is famous) and other assorted and highly caloric pastry delights. But I was determined to remain strong and closed my eyes as we were led to our table.

Last year I had ordered the half order of biscuits and gravy with hash browns and remembered them fondly. But I wanted to try something different. Since my last order of corned beef hash (while in Salt Lake City) had been unsatisfying, I decided to order Stella’s hash with two eggs over easy and sourdough toast. This was more like it. Yes. It was probably your basic commercial corned beef hash, but was just what I wanted and what I expected. And the eggs had not been cooked in a ring form so developed the thin crispy edges that the Salt Lake City restaurant lacked. And if you think this is a huge breakfast, you are right. Chuck ate half of the toast, and I brought about half of the hash home to make an equally filling breakfast the next day.

Chuck’s breakfast the previous year was the Stella’s Surprise - hash browns with onion, green peppers, and ham mixed in, topped with cheddar cheese and eggs with salsa and sour cream on the side. This was an enormous breakfast, but his choice this year – Chicken Fried Steak with white sausage gravy and hash browns – wasn’t exactly diet eats either. This was a really first-rate chicken fried steak, moist and crisp, and covered with the same sausage gravy that I’d had on my biscuits the year before. One taste and I remembered why I liked my biscuits and gravy last year. With his steak came a large slab of finely shredded hash browns.

I paid our bill at the front register and received back $5.00 and change from my twenty. What do I see? An apple strudel (Or did they call it stollen?) for $4.95. So much for good intentions. They got my five, and I got their strudel.

Stella’s is a definite breakfast keeper and retains its 4.5 Addie rating of last year.

The next night it was dinner at La Maison de Jeanne. And that night I ate one of the best chicken salads ever. Since the weather was warmer, we stayed inside with our strawberry margaritas and dinner.

Joan’s salad contained small cubes of chicken mixed with red onion, carrots, red peppers, currants, toasted cashews, and mango and tossed in a curry, lime, and mayo dressing. It was the perfect meal for a warm and somewhat humid evening. The salad was a mix of textures and tastes. Crunch came from the cashews, onion, red peppers, and onion. Softness came from the chicken, currants, and mango. The mango and currants added a sweet flavor and the curry added a mild spice. And I now possess this recipe. As sides, we had a plate of raw veggies that included jicama, broccoli, and carrots and a salad with black beans, grapes, and tomatoes.

And for dessert, another surprise. During our trip to Montana last year we discovered the noble huckleberry. They have a taste similar to blueberries, but many say when they are fully ripe, it’s much like eating the most flavorful blueberry in the world. Joan had gone to Stella’s and had a huckleberry pie specially made for our dessert. And she served the pie with vanilla ice cream from Wilcoxson’s Dairy of Livingston, MT. How thoughtful of Joan to remember that we loved both these. And, to show our appreciation, we made dessert disappear in short order.